Ever had that feeling that you need to see some other people? I get that feeling about music every now and again, especially when I flip on the radio and enter that vast sonic wasteland known as "American pop/rap/hip-hop." At that point I seek an aural overseas adventure to see what folks elsewhere are singing. Here are several journeys worth book and they won't cost you more than a buck a track.
My first offering is the glorious Eva Salina and you're not actually leaving the USA at all to experience the wonders of her Romani, Dutch, Jewish repertoire; she's a Californian. On her latest, Lema Lema (Vogiton Records), she features Balkan and Romani (Gypsy) songs from the repertoire of Serbia Romani legend Šaban Bajramović (1936-2008). If you don't know his music, you're hardly alone on this hemisphere, but let's just say it's the kind of mishmash you'd anticipate from traveling folk: village folk songs, hot jazz, keening vocals, bright brass, and an air of sauciness. And you'd better be an extraordinary singer to tackle this stuff, as its demands on the larynx are not for the easily winded. Believe me when I say that Ms. Salina is up to the challenge; hers is a voice for the ages. When she takes on "Boza Limunada," a mildly naughty song of a man looking for a fertile wife, Salina slams it with the brazenness of old-style Greek rebetika singers (many of whom were also prostitutes). If you think she's a muscular singer, wait until you get a load of the accordion (mostly by Peter Stan on this album). Salina is positively a brawny imp on "Hovani Romni," the story of a cuckold drowning his horns in booze. Her notes pulse out like she's a one-woman oompah-pah band. All of the songs tend to have tough themes, but Salina is so gifted she can make a song like "Koj Is Gola Roma" sound like a lyrical Italian folksong despite the fact its male protagonist endures beatings. Salina said she wanted to fuse lyricism with a splash of Bollywood–sounds weird, but works brilliantly! By contrast, her take on "Pijanica" feels like a van driven by a Balkans brass band dropped into a zocalo to jam with a mariachi ensemble. This is easily one of the year's finest albums and that's not just my opinion–Ms. Salina was recently the centerpiece of an NPR profile. No exaggeration is needed when hurling accolades at Eva Salina. Listen for yourself.
Let's stay in the same cultural ballpark for a moment. Arsen Petrosyan is an Armenian-born duduk musician. The duduk is a double-reed flute in the oboe and shawm family, though its sound is bolder and its tonal qualities more reminiscent of the clarinet. Petrosyan's Charentsyan (CD Baby) is a nice introduction to Armenia's national instrument. Much of the release can be described as mournful and formal in tone, though there are a few departures. "Hazar Ernek" has the vibe of a belly dance; "Javakki Shoror" casts impressions of a raw village folk tune—especially the call-and-response interplay with other instruments–though its hand percussion has similarities with Southeast Indian arrangements. Petrosyan is obviously a talented musician, but whether you'll fancy all nine tracks is a matter of individual taste. I'd recommend going to a site like SoundCloud and sampling to see what strikes your fancy. Something will.
Moken is from Cameroon, but now lives in Atlanta. His debut, Chapters of My Life (Bantu Records) is a pan-African look at his life thus far: from Africa to broke fashionista at a Detroit design school to a working musician. It's an odd little release in many ways and definitely not your average Afropop recording. He counts among his influences Van Morrison, Nina Simone, and Manu Dibango. It's hard to hear much Morrison on this record other than short rock riffs every now and then, as on "Wiating for the Day," the sunniest track in the collection, but Dibango and Simone are in evidence. Dibango is a Cameroonian saxophonist famed for fusing jazz, funk, and folk–and Chapters of My Life certainly has that vibe. "Ma Masse," for instance, is done in the style of a Senegalese mbalax, but in a more dramatic less danceable style than most mbalax offerings. Two songs, "Machine Man" and "Walkin Man" reference Moken's impoverished student days when he occasionally lived in his car. The second tune has a suitably robotic feel to mark a time in which his car left him stranded 10 miles from his destination. You can definitely hear Simone's influence in Moken, especially his preference for material that is sultry, soulful, and meditative. As in the case of Petroysan, though, I'd recommend you sample before you buy. My overall sense is that Chapters of My Life is an incomplete project with filler and a few songs short of completion. There is promise here, but the repertoire could use some work.